The world today has found itself in an unprecedented situation, where almost all countries of the world have come under the grip of the COVID-19 outbreak. The disease was declared as a global pandemic by the WHO and has already caused much damage to human life, economy, and society. However, as the world fights the deadly virus, India seems to be in a battle of its own: battling a two-pronged war against Coronavirus on the one hand, and Islamophobia on the other.
The Tablighi Jamaat incident, wherein around 3,400 people came together for a conference on March 13 and subsequently many members contracted the Coronavirus from large number of foreign attendees of the event has led to the resurgence of Islamophobia in India. The incident itself was a clear failure of the government and the bureaucratic machinery. But, since the individuals involved belonged to a particular religious group, they (the administration) were seemingly let off easily.
The incident is a true representation of how far the secular fabric of India has been destroyed, especially in the light of the Northeast-Delhi violence just a month ago, targeting the Muslims which led to more than 53 deaths, out of which two-thirds were Muslims.
The mainstream media channels who, in the past, actively spread hatred in society rose up to the occasion and wasted no time in transposing the entire Coronavirus outbreak in India to Muslims. The reporting of the entire outbreak has followed the strict binary of ‘us’ and ‘them’ which can be frequently found in the narrative of the Hindutva forces.
Large sections of the society were given the message, through these channels, that it was okay to demonise an entire community on the pretext of the outbreak. The media houses who, for a month, had been lost in the dilemma of how to question their own advertisers and playing antakshri (a game) to compensate for the lack of news, suddenly found a story perfectly suited to their area of specialisation. One of conducting Hindu- Muslim debates among bigoted leaders, ‘sting operations’ on ordinary people, and rage-filled anchors shouting for viewership and TRP.
The English media channels who, in the past tried, to maintain a façade of neutrality emerged as the centres from which hatred could be moulded into ‘sophisticated’ arguments about how a particular community had failed the nation and needs to be disciplined.
Madrasas had to face sting operations because they provide food and shelter to kids. The self-confessed ‘nationalist’ channels went the extra mile to ostracise the community by spreading fake news, propagating violence against Muslims, and posting rhetorical questions as headlines urging people to identify the ‘villain’ of the outbreak.
The hatred spread by the media has simply refused to stop and shifted the entire focus from the widespread suffering of the common man due to the lockdown, by masking any failure by the central and state governments as an effect of the malicious intent of Muslims.
As the mainstream media collectively failed our multicultural society, social media has emerged as the perfect platform to target Muslims and incite hatred without any accountability. The insidious IT cell and its large army of followers got #coronajihad trending within an hour. According to data published by the TIME Equality Labs, the hashtag was shared 3 lakh times and was viewed by as many as 165 million people.
The spread of Islamophobia has now found its support among a large section of ‘apolitical’ citizens. The spread of fake news over social media was rampant and infiltrated family WhatsApp groups, professional platforms, and our homes. Although some official Twitter pages of police authorities have countered fake news, they pose little challenge to the ‘robo-public’ that accepts every fake news probably due to the deep-rooted belief that a community is inherently ‘bad’. This has also been followed by social media blitzkrieg in form of trolling, shaming, and online abuse of every individual who stated that human stupidity should not be used to demonise or harm an entire community.
The Islamophobia that has spread the polity of India is these extraordinary times is unprecedented and has far-reaching consequences for our nation as compared to other divisive issues of the past. One of the major reasons for this is that hatred against the Muslims has gained the consent and acceptance of large sections of society that did not subscribe to Islamophobia in the past.
Despite the lockdown, there are multiple examples on how Islamophobia has been successful in an economic boycott, the denial of medical treatment, emotional abuse, and even the lynching of Muslims. I really do feel that the example of the Tabligh will be used in the future to develop divisive stereotypes and would contribute heavily to the Hindutva divide of ‘patriots’ subscribing to Islamophobia and anti-nationals.
The secular fabric of India has been breached with the past failures and wrongdoings of the democratic institutions and present failure its civil society. As Dalit Rights activist and scholar Anand Teltumbde wrote in his open letter before he was arrested on Ambedkar Jayanti, “The jingoist nation and nationalism have got weaponised by the political class to destroy dissent and polarize people. I see my India being ruined…..”
The pandemic poses a huge challenge to our nation where poverty is set to increase drastically in the upcoming days. Our economy, under recession from February itself, is bound to be severely affected. The farmers, unskilled workers, daily wage labourers, and all women under the poverty line are the hardest hit and cannot be sufficiently taken care of under the present circumstances.
As challenges mount one after the other, India cannot afford to be a divided nation and needs all hands on deck to come out of this disaster. Internal divide among the people can only lead to the disastrous consequences for the nation. While our scientists work hard to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 it remains the responsibility of the political class of Indian citizens to eliminate Islamophobia from India. Otherwise, before the virus, hate could get us all.